WEST KELOWNA – Of the approximately 120 honours viticulturist and winemaker Karnail Singh Sidhu has received since opening Kalala Organic Estate Winery in 2008, receiving the BC Grapegrowers Association’s inaugural Viticulturist of the Year award is the most satisfying.
“Ninety percent of winemaking is done in the vineyard,” says Sidhu. “If a wine loses [a contest], they blame the grapes and grower, but there are few awards that recognize the work it takes to create great grapes.”
BCGA created the award to both recognize growers who set the pace for the rest of the industry and raise their profile in the eyes of the public so they know the work that goes into their favourite wines.
“BCGA has talked about doing an award for several years,” says BCGA administrator Tyrion Miskell, who credits the arrival of Blasted Church Vineyards vineyard manager John Bayley, now BCGA president, with getting the initiative off the ground.
Bayley says the award was established “to commend those in our industry who rarely get the public recognition, yet provide the grapes needed for the fantastic wines we produce.”
Recipients of the peer-judged award are selected by a BCGA board member, an industry member and a government researcher during vineyard visits.
Sidhu was one of five nominees for the first award. His win recognizes 20 years of hard work.
“Karnail cares about his land, his grapes and his community and sets a great example for other growers,” says Bayley, one of this year’s judges. “His approach to his farming practices and to his colleagues were a significant reason for his winning as the judges saw these actions as integral to forwarding the industry.”
Started as berry picker
Sidhu arrived in Canada from Punjab in 1993 at the age of 25 with his parents, brother and sister and $40. While he trained as an electrical engineer in India, his qualifications weren’t recognized in Canada. He found work first as a berry picker then as a vineyard worker, eventually landing his first full-time job at Summerhill Pyramid Winery in Kelowna. His work ethic attracted the attention of Summerhill owner Stephen Cipes, who paid for his viticulture training and promoted him to vineyard manager.
The decade he spent at Summerhill also taught Sidhu the art of winemaking and business skills. He also gained mentors. He affectionately refers to former Summerhill winemaker Alan Marks as his older brother. The two continue to work together today.
Kalala’s research and development is aided by Ashish Dave, CEO of FloraMaxx Technologies Ltd. in Kelowna. Dave, a leading-edge research and production scientist in plant biotechnology, has been key in optimizing pruning practices and irrigation management at Kalala, as well as evaluating plant extracts and nutrients for improved grapevine vigour, yield and juice quality.
Marks and Dave aren’t the only ones who’ve been part of Sidhu’s business journey.
In 1995, he was managing grapes for the owner of the land where Kalala’s tasting room now sits. Knowing he wanted his own business, Sidhu planned to purchase the property when it came up for sale in 2005 but his financing was delayed. It sold instead to the Novak family of Prince George, owners of Dunkley Lumber Ltd. The former owner facilitated introductions and the Novaks ended up leasing the vineyard and residence to Sidhu.
Sidhu now manages 63 acres of vineyard across the Okanagan as well as seven acres of orchard and market gardens. Approximately 37 acres are owned and 33 acres are leased, including his home property.
The winery, opened in 2008, produces about 6,000 cases a year. (Sidhu is also the winemaker, although he doesn’t drink.) Approximately 95% of the winery’s production is sold in BC. Sidhu also sells a small amount of bulk wine as well as some grapes to other wineries.
The way nature intended
Sidhu attributes part of reason for receiving the award to the health of his vineyards. He grows organically because “that’s the way nature intended agriculture,” a legacy of his father who farmed wheat, rice, cotton and sugar cane without chemicals.
“I remember when they were using DDT in India to help kill mosquitoes to battle malaria. Even though it was the law, my dad refused to have our home sprayed. He thought it was dangerous,” explains Sidhu, who says the secret to a clean crop is avoiding issues by catching potential problems early. This is especially important in organic agriculture because of the limited pest and disease treatment options available to certified organic growers.
“I tell all my tractor drivers they have the perfect opportunity to see all the plants in the vineyard so they need to keep their eyes open and if they see any changes or anything different, to let me know,” he says.
He’s also a believer of ongoing learning. He conducts his own trials and is a partner on research projects with UBC Okanagan, Simon Fraser University and the Summerland Research and Development Centre. He regularly attends conferences and workshops, and gladly shares what he knows with others.
“If people ask me, I’ll tell them. You don’t do yourself any favour hiding information. You learn from people’s questions,” he says.
Despite his success, he’s also known disappointment. He lost a property in the Similkameen because crop projections weren’t realized and the bank stepped in. More recently, all but 10 vines in a new Vidal block died. He’s unsure if the soil quality or weather conditions in the block were responsible. However, he’s propagating the surviving vines to replant the block, confident their genetics will make a winning crop
“If you say you can’t do it, you can’t do it,” he says. “I jump into it. If we fail, we learn.”
He’s also willing to help others learn. A former employee recently embarked on distilling training at Niagara College after an internship and more than two years working at Kalala. When she came in 2015 as an intern, she was tasked with producing Kalala’s top-end white, red and ice wines. She was surprised and nervous, but with guidance, she did it, completed her course and came back to work at Kalala until this past December.
“She did a wonderful job and she knew it. She told me she learned way more here than students who worked at some of the bigger wineries,” he says. “I like to instill confidence in people. … People like her are the future of this industry.”
Sidhu’s entire family is involved in the business. His wife Narinder serves as controller and oversees sales and marketing, and their two daughters – now 21 and 14 – assist in various capacities. The two girls spent Father’s Day helping lay irrigation pipe.
Sidhu is not sure if they will continue the business but that’s not stopping him from thinking about the future, including the possibility of expansion.
He’s also not about to stop learning how to improve what he’s already doing. The award from the BCGA comes with a $2,000 prize to attend an educational event anywhere in the world.
With files from Tom Walker